Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, codirectors of “The Truffle Hunters,” had high hopes for one of their documentary’s festival debuts. “The dream for us was to walk down the red carpet with Birba in Cannes,” says Dweck.
Cannes ended up being canceled last year and Birba — one of the film’s stars — did not end up trotting down the French carpet. Instead, she’s been at home in Italy with her owner (and costar) Aurelio Conterno. Birba’s a truffle hunting dog, one of the world’s few.
“The Truffle Hunters” has been screened at many festivals since making its premiere at Sundance in early 2020, including Telluride, Toronto and the New York Film Festival, and was recently shortlisted for the Academy Awards. Fellow truffle enthusiast and filmmaker Luca Guadagnino served as the film’s executive producer.
“It was kind of mind-blowing. These are the festivals you read about and dream about,” says Kershaw. But Dweck and Kershaw were most excited about showing the film in the remote Piedmont town where they spent three years filming.
They originally planned a big street party in November — which also happens to be peak truffle season — as part of the Torino Film Festival. The film was going to screen at the community’s local 1930s movie theater. For some of the people featured in the film, who live disconnected from modern digital culture, it would have been their first time in a movie theater. The filmmakers instead hope to hold their celebration with the community this fall.
Kershaw and Dweck are looking forward to returning to the area they both stumbled upon, separately, several years ago. The duo, who met while living in the same Brooklyn apartment building, were finishing up their first creative collaboration, “The Last Race,” (with Dweck — who’s also a fine art photographer — as director and Kershaw as DP) when they began discussing the magical place in Italy they’d both visited. They decided to go back together and immerse themselves in the location to see if they could find a story worth telling using the language of cinema.
While there, the filmmakers began hearing about a secret society of mountain men who scoured the forests for ultra-rare (and expensive) white Alba truffles with their dogs.
Over the next three years, Dweck and Kershaw befriended locals, slowly earning the trust of the insular truffle hunters. “Through the process of discovery, we realized that we had to slow down while we were making the film,” says Kershaw. In short, they had to let go of their expectations for how the production should unfold. They shot less than intended, but ended up capturing scenes that were more powerful.
The filmmakers present the world through lush, painterly shots, which lends an otherworldly quality to the scenes, whether in the forest, on a cobbled back street observing a truffle transaction, or at home with the truffle hunters and their dogs. “It was a world, a place, that felt like a fairy tale,” says Kershaw.
They decided on a different aesthetic approach when capturing the dog’s perspective of that same world. Working with a local shoe cobbler, they attached a GoPro to the dogs, and let the cameras roll as the dogs bounded through the forest during truffle-hunting sessions.
“We wanted to show the dogs’ perspective when they’re running through the woods and their frenetic frenzy of excitement,” says Dweck of bringing viewers along for the hunt. “You can almost see them smiling, because it was such visceral joy.”
While the dizzying footage presents the world from the dog’s point of view, it also delivers an additional unexpected perspective on the relationship between the dogs and their owners. “Aurelio, for example, talks to Birba,” says Dweck. “We didn’t realize it until we saw this footage; we didn’t realize that he’s sharing his inner thoughts of his world, his fears, his life story with her.”
There is a dark side to most fairy tales, and there is a sinister facet within the competitive (and lucrative) world of truffle hunting. In one scene we discover that someone has been setting poison traps in the woods to kill rival dogs. “Nobody knew who’s doing it,” says Dweck, adding that the concept of “trespassing” doesn’t exist when it comes to searching for truffles.
In addition to several truffle hunters (including one who has defected from the practice, in part due to environmental concerns), Dweck and Kershaw filmed truffle evaluator Paulo Stacchini. A particularly impressive specimen sells at auction for $110,000.
A perk of filming was, naturally, access to truffles, and the filmmakers were able to indulge the delicacy often. But the year that the pair began filming the documentary, there was a drought and truffle shortage. It was late in the season, and hunters were getting worried. Days after it finally rained (truffles need water to bloom), Kershaw and Dweck accompanied a truffle hunter on his nighttime search.
“We finally found one,” says Kershaw. “He was ecstatic, and we were ecstatic to witness that for the first time. We assumed that he was going to call the truffle dealer; that’s what he had been talking about.” Instead, the hunter invited the pair back to his house and heated up a cast iron pan in his wood burning stove. He cooked them eggs, and shaved the truffle on top.
“That was our first real taste of truffle,” adds Kershaw. “It was magical. Even more so, this truffle hunter was inviting us into their world. We felt like he was saying, OK, now you’re part of the family.”
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